ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

Murder in Misdirection

Chapter 1

 

He left to pick her up at the church, and hoped the subject had not arisen.

 

     “I imagine,” Father John ventured, “your husband would prefer that there be no newspaper coverage.”

     “You imagine correctly,” Doyle replied.  She was seated in the front pew of the church—empty, as it was mid-afternoon—whilst the good father stood before her, arms crossed and rocking a bit on this heels as they discussed the weekend’s activities. “It’s probably somethin’ that’s best left quiet—although it’s not as though he’s in line to inherit the throne, or anythin’.”

     Doyle’s husband, Lord Acton, was to be confirmed at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church here in London, and—since he was a peer of the realm—this would incite no little interest, particularly as he was famous in his own right for fighting crime and corruption. Or, more correctly, he was a crimefighter when he wasn’t committing his own crimes and corruption on the side—Detective Chief Inspector Acton was a vigilante, beneath his much-beloved public persona, and despite his much-aggrieved wife’s attempts to sway him from this course.

     “A small notice, only,” Father John suggested. “But in the front-page section, perhaps.”

     Doyle had to smile at his persistence. “Give over, Father; it’s not as though anyone’s goin’ to think religious conversion is all the rage, nowadays.”

     The good father cast a calculating eye over the little church’s interior. “In these times, any good publicity is appreciated, lass. I was able to refinish the pews, after the Everyday Heroes program made the papers.”

     Doyle refrained from mentioning that it was a murder at the church program that had made the papers, and not necessarily the program itself, because she could see that Father John had been bitten by the fund-raising bug and the next thing you knew he’d probably be selling naming-rights for the holy water fonts. “And here I thought you took a vow of poverty, Father.”

     The priest ducked his chin. “I did indeed, lass. But there are so many worthy causes—and a bit of extra money is always appreciated.”

     But Doyle—who’d rotated through larceny-by-trick, when she’d trained at the Crime Academy—tended to be more cynical. “It seems to me that whenever some charity starts makin’ a little extra money, they run into trouble by convincin’ themselves they deserve a better reward.”

     “There can be only one, eternal reward,” the priest agreed firmly. “And those who fall into the mortal sin of greed are foolish indeed, if they throw it away.”  

     She glanced at him sidelong, from her position in the front pew. “I imagine Acton’s goin’ to make it well-worth your while, whether it makes the newspapers or not.”  After all, her generous husband had already paid for the church’s new roof and the new heating system—not to mention a new stained-glass window, which had been destroyed under best-be-forgotten circumstances.

     At this reference, Father John looked a bit conscious, and nodded. “Well—as to that, he’s mentioned a project, but I’m not at liberty to say more.”

     “A-ha,” she teased. “A bell-tower, with a gold-plated bell, within.” Father John had long admired the impressive bell tower that graced Holy Trinity Church—or used to grace it, more correctly.  The large church, in a posh London neighborhood, had recently burned to the ground.

     The priest sighed with regret.  “Bell towers are too old-fashioned, nowadays—the city wouldn’t want us ringin’ it, and makin’ noise. And such a heavy weight on the roof can be a hazard, as we’ve learned to our great sadness.” He shook his head. “That poor woman.”

     “What poor woman?” Doyle asked in surprise. “Never say someone was killed?”

     Father John raised his brows. “You haven’t heard? They found a body in the rubble, days later. Burnt, of course—but the police believe it is the charwoman; a longtime parishioner.” He paused, and his troubled gaze rested on the altar.  “They think she’s the one who set the fire, and got caught up in it, somehow.”

     This was disturbing on several different levels, most notably because Doyle’s better half hadn’t thought it worthy of a mention to her. “Was it arson, truly?  Faith, I didn’t know—why would she be wantin’ to burn the place down?”

     With an air of sadness, the priest fixed his gaze on the altar. “She was an immigrant—from the Philippines, I believe—and was strayin’ a bit from the faith.”  He paused, and sighed. “It’s hard to compete with the evangelicals—all that fire, and passion.” 

     “And talk about fund-raisin’,” Doyle teased. “No one can fund-raise like the evangelicals.”

     He smiled. “True, and more power to them—we all seek the same aim, after all. The poor woman was not in her right mind, of course, and so I’ve been prayin’ for her soul.  It’s a terrible thing, to destroy a church.”

     Doyle paused, because her scalp had started prickling, which was what happened when her intuition was prodding her to pay attention.  Although she kept the fact well-hidden, she had an extraordinary perceptive ability that was a crackin’ nuisance in her everyday life, but was sometimes an enormous help with her detective work, mainly because she could sense the emotions of the people in her vicinity, and could tell—usually—when someone was lying.

     In addition, her instinct would occasionally nudge her into paying attention to something that was important—even though the reason for this wasn’t clear to her—as it was doing now.  Father John said it was a terrible thing to destroy a church—no arguing with that—so why was her scalp prickling? Of course, Holy Trinity had a bit of a cloud hanging over it, due to its association with various criminal enterprises, but since it was now a smoldering ruin, one would think that it didn’t matter, anymore.

     Frowning slightly, she tried to catch at the elusive feeling. “Are they goin’ to rebuild?”

     The priest turned to raise a significant brow at her. “ʼTis another blow, hard on the last. They thought they had insurance, but, as it turned out, the facilities manager was pocketin’ the premium money, instead.”  He paused, thinking about it. “I suppose I should pray for him, too. Greed is a terrible sin.”

     “Worse than listenin’ to the evangelicals?” Doyle teased.

     “Now, lass; not a laughin’ matter,” the priest scolded. “I’ve pledged to take up an emergency collection for the rebuildin’ effort, but I haven’t high hopes.”

     Doyle nodded in resigned acknowledgment. St. Michael’s was a small parish in Chelsea, and rarely had two pence to rub together—that was, until Acton had chosen the mackerel-snapping Doyle to be his unlikely bride, and then had decided to convert to Roman Catholicism.  Therefore—as a happy result of the caprices of his lordship’s affections—the church’s fortunes were now looking up. 

     She offered, “Well, mayhap the DCS will pony up some of his cash; he’s got quite the flock.”  The former detective chief superintendent of Scotland Yard was currently serving a prison sentence for corruption, but he’d supposedly seen the error of this ways, and had started evangelizing for the prison ministry. Due to this high-profile conversion, the man had attracted a large following, and Doyle had barely managed to dissuade Father John from making a donation to his ministry, being as she did not believe for one moment that this particular leopard had changed his spots.

     “I know you’re jokin’, lass, but God’s ways are mysterious.  What we see as a terrible tragedy is all part of His perfect plan.”

     Again, Doyle’s scalp prickled, and she wondered why it would.

     While she was thus distracted, the priest circled back to the topic at hand, which was the planning of Acton’s confirmation ceremony. “Would your husband object to a small reception in the hall? The bishop will be here, after all.”

     “Kissin’ up,” she teased. “It’s shameless, you are.”

      The priest ducked his chin, and regarded her with a serious expression.  “Now, my motives are a bit purer, Kathleen. We’ve a matter before him, and I rather wondered if you could—” here he paused, delicately. “‘Intervene’ is perhaps too strong a word.”

     With some amusement, she quirked her mouth. “You’ve got the wrong girl, if you think I can come up with the right word. Father.  Just tell me straight-out what’s afoot.”

     Slowly, the priest began, “I’m not one to be second-guessin’ the police, as you know.”

     Doyle immediately perked up, because whilst she was normally a detective sergeant for the CID, at present she was on maternity leave, and having a very tedious time of it.  “Oh? What’s happened?”

     “A couple from Holy Trinity parish came to ask for my assistance, since their own pastor is a bit distracted. It seems that their son worked in an investment firm in the financial district, and—sadly—he took his own life.”

     “Ach,” she said sympathetically. “I’m that sorry for it.”

     “Yes, but they are convinced he would never have done such a thing. Apparently, he’d been embezzlin’ a great deal of money, and was driven to despair when he was caught out. But his parents tell me he was a good RC, and never would have killed himself.  So, they’re hopin’ for a funeral, and absolution.”

     Doyle, who wasn’t up-to-speed on such things, asked, “Oh—is he not allowed a funeral mass, then?”

     Father John shrugged. “It’s left up to the bishop, and much depends on whether the poor soul was in his right mind at the time. But in a case such as this one—when the suicide appears to be the result of an underlyin’ crime—it’s a bit harder to believe the victim was not aware of the sinfulness of his act.  Instead, the church assumes he freely took his own life, in defiance of God’s will.  The bishop must consider the matter very seriously.”

     Doyle thought about it for a moment, and then ventured, “I suppose it’s hard for a parent to believe the worst—especially if you’ve raised your child in the church.”

     But Father John fixed his gaze on hers. “Now, before you say anythin’, lass, hear me out.  They tell me there was a bloodstain beneath the gun on the floor—even showed me a photo.”

     Her interest caught, Doyle stared at him. “Was there indeed?” This was something they taught you at the Crime Academy—often murders were staged as suicides, and one of the tell-tale signs was a bloodstain where it shouldn’t have been.  A shot to the head caused instant collapse, and any short-lived bleeding would occur only after the weapon hit the floor.  “Surely, the Met has looked into it?”

     Father John crossed his arms. “They have indeed, but apparently, the evidence was such that it was clear he’d done it himself.  The net was closin’ in on him, and he was soon to be exposed.”

     Still frowning, Doyle mused, “You know, now that I think about it, there’s been a basketful of suicides in the financial district.”

     “Oh? Is that so?”  The priest shook his head. “Greed, again. A terrible sin.”

     She glanced up at him. “Have you mentioned this to Acton?”

      The priest hesitated. “Well, I would have, Kathleen, but I didn’t want it to appear—” his voice trailed off.

      The penny dropped, and Doyle offered, “Oh—it’s like one of these ‘quid for prose’ things. You don’t want him to think he’s obligated, just because you’re confirmin’ him.”

     “Exactly.”  The priest nodded.

     “Then I’ll have a look-see,” she assured him.  “It sounds like somethin’ I can handle, so long as it doesn’t involve walkin’ more than ten feet at a time.”

     The priest reached to place a soothing hand on her shoulder. “Not much longer, lass. And when the babe is born, it will all be well-worth it.”

     “Faith,” she groused, “I’d sell my own soul, just to be able to take a deep breath again.”

     They both looked up as Acton himself entered from the annex door, and approached. “Ho,” Doyle greeted him. “We’re stagin’ up the scene o’ the crime.”

     “Then I am a willing felon.”  He bent to kiss her, and shook the priest’s hand. “Father.”

     “Michael—it’s grand to see you. I’ll leave the two of you alone.” The priest gave Doyle a significant look before he strolled away.

     Acton slid in next to her, and tilted his head toward the retreating priest as he rested an arm across the pew behind her. “What was that about?”

     Doyle rested her head against his arm. “He’s turned into a money-hound, my friend, and is wantin’ to garner some publicity for this wretched church.”  She glanced over at him. “I told him you’d be perfectly willin’ to grease his palm on the quiet, but I think his plan is to give the evangelicals some competition, in the jostlin’ for hearts and souls.”

     “Whatever you will,” Acton replied in a mild tone, and took her hand in his.

     “What I will,” she retorted a bit tartly, “is not to be put on display, like a raree show.”

     “Then we’ll have to think of some alternative to a raree show.  May I take you home?”

     “You don’t even know what a raree show is,” she accused.

     “Too true,” he conceded. “You will have to take me to see one.”

     “There’s not the smallest chance. You’d think it vulgar, and look askance through your—your—” Searching for the right word, she made a frustrated gesture with her hand.

     “Opera glasses?”

     “Yes. Your opera glasses.”

     “I regret to say that I do not own a pair of opera glasses.”

     “There’s a point in your favor, then.”

     There was a small silence, until Acton gently squeezed her shoulder. “Sooner or later, we’ll have to go home.”

     “I’m avoidin’ home,” she declared bluntly. “For the love of all that’s holy, Michael, please tell me that you’re plannin’ to break Savoie out of prison.”

     He smiled for a moment, and then admitted, “Of course I am.”

     She laughed aloud, because—wonder of wonders—it was true.